The Reformation with a capital "R," also called the Protestant reformation, is commonly thought to have started on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany. There are a group of men collectively known as the reformers that figured in the movements that followed. I say movements because the Reformation did not remain politically or theologically unified.

Just as the movements failed at unity in the end so the starting point was not actually a point. As with all "events" in history closer examination finds that the event was probably not a single action but a whole series of interrelated actions by many that finally produced the tipping point. That "tipping point," in Germany at least, was likely the events that surrounded Martin Luther; what the Roman Catholic Church refers to as Luther's Rebellion. It should also be noted that the Roman Catholic Church had made many informal attempts at reform before and after Luther.

There were, to be sure, theological matters at issue for the reformers and that will be my primary focus of these pages but the reformation cannot be considered without also looking at the politics of the day. These, of course, had their root in much earlier events so it is difficult to know where to start. We note at this point that religion and politics have always mixed, mostly uncomfortably.

For centuries official state cults and tribal religions of one form or another were the rule rather than the exception. The purely secular state is a modern notion that is actually impossible to achieve as societies are organized around some set of core values and those values are usually carried by their religion. Into a world divided by cults tied to ethnicity, locality or the ruler of the day, Christianity came appealing to a broad range of the population irrespective of the state-cult or ethnic group. The appeal of Christianity, especially to the under-classes in the Roman Empire is thought by some to be the reason for Rome's persecution of Christianity. (As a side note, in Roman times, Christians were often accused of being atheists because they worshipped a god that had no image. They were also exclusive about their notion of God; they would not say "Caesar is Lord.")

By tradition, the Roman Emperor had control of religion in his dominion; among his titles was Pontifex Maximus (Chief Priest). When Constantine (272-337) was converted and legalized Christianity in 313, this set the stage for an official state Christianity to develop. In 380, Theodosius' Edictum de fide catholica made Christianity the oficial church of the Roman Empire. In these times of state Christianity, there were more than a few political converts, following what continues to be a long tradition of subscribing to the religion of those that were in power. This was also true in the other lands where Christianity spread. Political conversions do not generally produce devout adherents and so the spread of Christianity produced some uncomfortable hybrids on its way, but that is another story. Whenever the prince was converted the people followed suit. On Constantine's death the Empire was divided. East and West split politically and eventually the Church split as well. (Constantine died in 337, the schism in the Church between East and West was in 1054 and was to do in large measure with the increasing power claimed by the Pope, the Bishop of Rome.)

The Church in the West went through the trials we are about to consider while the East the Church centered its efforts on worship and did not seek to control the state or to make its voice heard in the ranges of collective life outside the sacraments and individual morals. Yet the Church was not subservient to the state as the pre-Christian official cults had been. It developed a measure of autonomy, even though limited. (Latourette p 81)

The Church in the East actually had a front row seat for the rise of Islam (beginning about 622). That is why it is often said that the Eastern Church is the Church of the martyrs. In general Eastern Orthodoxy has survived as a minority religion in many times not so friendly states. But that too is another, quite worthy, story.

Charlemagne (742-814) became king of the Franks and eventually held the title Roman Emperor, except for the fact that it was a much smaller empire than what Constantine had at his peak. (We also note that these were the days of the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) the Greatest Islamic Empire the world has seen and was knocking on the door of Europe.) Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III and that marked the beginning of what is now called the Holy Roman Empire. In the West much political power was held by the Church. At times the Church had the power to make Emperors and Princes. The power to make a prince gave the Pope a certain power over that prince. (Quite apart from issues of heaven and hell.) To further muddle things the Holy Roman Emperor and others of the nobility could, at times, select the Pope.

There were also conflicts between the Churchman and the Princes as to the appointment of Bishops. Sometimes bishops were appointed by the monarch, sometimes the Pope and sometimes by popular election with variously laity and clergy participating in the election. There was great variation in the quality and ecclesiastical qualifications of these bishops. With some of the clergy being little more than political appointees, there were calls from inside the Roman Catholic Church for reformation and that the clergy should live lives that were better examples to their flocks. This is in part the story that led to Pope Gregory VII (r. 1072-1085) and the Gregorian Reforms.

There was conflict between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor as to which of them was the leader of Christendom in secular matters. The success of the early crusades (1095-1270) added greatly to the prestige of the Popes as secular leaders of Christendom, with monarchs like the Kings of England, France, and even the Emperor merely acting as Marshals for the Popes and leading "their" armies. By the early 14th century, however, the papacy was well past the prime of its secular rule – its importance having peaked during the reign of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216).

All this to say that when Luther posted his theses he got a political storm as well as the theological debate he was after. Indeed, Luther himself had to distance himself from peasant revolts and general rebellions against civil authorities. Luther was not the first to try to open this theological and lifestyle discussion. Many in the church, including many Popes had been trying to get Christians, both clergy and laity, to live like Christians for years. Something for which we still strive today.


Date Event
1517 Martin Luther (1483-1546) posts his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenburg Cathedral, in protest at the Catholic doctrine of indulgences and formally begins the Protestant Reformation.
1518 Zwingli becomes the pastor of the Grossmünster in Zurich where he began to preach ideas on reforming the Catholic Church.

Luther publishes three monumental works, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian.

In The Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther outlined the doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers and denied the authority of the Pope to interpret, or confirm interpretation of the Bible.

1521 (Jan-May)

Diet of Worms

Luther appears at the Diet before Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, to to answer charges of heresy. On refusing to recant, he is declared a heretic and formally excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Leo X.

Frederick III, Elector of Saxony ensures that Luther is taken to the Wartburg Castle for his own safety.

1521 (October)

British Monarch granted title "Defender of the Faith"

After writing Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Defence of the Seven Sacraments) in opposition to Luther, Henry VIII of England is rewarded with the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) by Pope Leo X.


Luthor begins work on German Bible

While at the Wartburg castle, Luther works on a translation of the Bible into German and publishes his New Testament translation (The Old Testament translation is posted later, in 1534).


Zwingli marries in secret

Signs a petition with 10 other ministers to ask the Bishop of Constance for permission to marry; Zwingli also writes his Apologeticus Archeteles as a testimony of his faith. In his publications, he noted corruption in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, promoted clerical marriage, and attacked the use of images in places of worship.

1523 Zwingli holds a debate on images and the mass, and recommends that images are removed from churches across Switzerland.

The German Peasants' War, Great Peasants' War or Great Peasants' Revolt (German: Deutscher Bauernkrieg) was a widespread popular revolt in some German-speaking areas in Central Europe. It failed because of the intense opposition by the aristocracy, who slaughtered up to 100,000 of the 300,000 poorly armed peasants and farmers.

Martin Luther, the dominant leader of the Reformation in Germany, took a middle course in the Peasants' War. He criticized both the injustices imposed on the peasants, and the rashness of the peasants in fighting back.


Zwingli writes two anti-Anabaptist pamphlets after a public disputation on infant baptism, entitled On Baptism and On the Preaching Office:

Anabaptists are not supported by either Catholics or Protestants and are distinct from both movements. They believe in baptising when people are adults and can make their own decisions and decide their own faith, rather than when people are infants so cannot make their own decisions.


English Bible

William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) publishes a translation of the New Testament in English.


Marburg Colloquy

Luther meets the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) to discuss the issue of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Both parties are unable to come to an agreement, with Luther defending his view of a Sacramental Union of the body and blood and the bread and wine as opposed to the symbolic view of Zwingli.


Augsburg Confession

Publication of the Confessio Augustana or Augsburg Confession, outlining Lutheran theology and practice. 


Death of Ulrich Zwingli

Following conflict between the Catholic and Protestant cantons of the Swiss confederacy, Zwingli is killed during the Battle of Kappel.


English Reformation

The marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon is declared null and void by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury in defiance of the Catholic church. Henry later marries Anne Boleyn.


William Farel was appointed as Geneva's first Protestant priest.

Calvin formally breaks with Roman Catholicism, and is possibly imprisoned for a short time.


Society of Jesus

Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) founds the Society of Jesus (Jesuit) order as part of the Catholic counter-reformation. Parts of Poland, Hungry and Germany are reconverted from Protestantism to Catholicism.

1534 (November)

Act of Supremacy

Henry VIII becomes supreme head of the Church in England, which separates from the Roman Catholic Church.


Thomas More Executed

Thomas More (1478-1535) is executed on the orders of Henry VIII for refusing to support the English Reformation.


Tyndale executed

William Tyndale burnt at the stake for heresy. His final words were: Lord! Open the King of England's eyes.


Calvin's Insitutes

John Calvin (1509-1564) publishes (in Latin) his work of Systematic Theology: Institutes of the Christian Religion.


Dissolution of the Monasteries by British Crown

Henry VIII disbands monasteries, convents, priories and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland.


In January, a Protestant Statement of Faith is presented to the Genevan City Council.


Calvin and Farel are banished from Geneva; Calvin settles in Strasbourg.


In March, Calvin publishes the Commentary of the Epistles of the Romans in Strasbourg, and gets married.


In April, Pierre Ameaux is sentenced to public repentance for defaming Calvin.


Council of Trent

The 19th Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church is held to reform and clarify doctrine. It repudiated Protestantism and led to the issuing of a Catechism in 1566.


Luther dies

Martin Luther dies at the age of 62, in Eisleben, Germany. His final words: We are beggars: this is true.


Book of Common Prayer

Publication of the first version of the Book of Common Prayer in the Church of England.


Servetus, Spanish theologian and physician, was executed in Geneva as a heretic:

Michael Servetus was also a Renaissance humanist, and studied the Bible in its original languages. He developed a nontrinitarian Christology. He was disliked by both Protestants and Catholics, and he was arrested in Geneva and burnt at the stake as a heretic, on the order of the Protestant Geneva governing council.


Peace of Augsburg

A treaty grants toleration to Lutherans within the Holy Roman Empire using the principle of cuius regio, eius religio or "Whose region, his religion".


Geneva Bible

Publication of the Geneva Bible - the first translation in English to use verse and chapter divisions.


39 Articles

The 39 Articles of the Church of England are first published, giving a summary of Anglican doctrine and practice. They were prceeded by the 42 Articles of 1552, written largely by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556).


Death of John Calvin

Calvin dies and is succeeded by Theodore Beza.


Edict of Nantes

French Protestants (Huguenots) are granted toleration by Henry IV in the Edict.


King James Bible

Publication of the KJV or Authorised Version, a translation for the Church of England.


Synod of Dort

The Dutch Reformed Church holds the synod to discuss the issues raised by the supporters of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). At the Synod, Five point Calvinism is upheld in opposition to Arminianism.


Revocation of the Edict of Nantes

Louis XIV (1638-1715) revokes the edict, leading to an exodus of Protestants from France. 12/12/15 12/12/15 12/12/15 12/2/18